If the last few weeks have shown us anything — and, let’s be honest, they’ve shown us a lot — it’s that sometimes life gets in the way. Take Joyelle McSweeney’s new collection of poetry, Toxicon And Arachne: Poems (paperback). In the following email interview about it, McSweeney discusses what inspired and influenced these poems, including the personal tragedy that prompted her to make changes to this collection.
To start, is there a theme to the poems in Toxicon And Arachne?
Yes! One day I was randomly looking up the etymology of the word “toxin” and I learned it derives from the Greek word for “arrow.” I started thinking — how is a toxin like an arrow? How does it sink its tooth in you, how does it take aim? How is a lifetime of toxicity like a lifetime of arrows sinking into your body and brain? And soon after I began to think: how is lyric poetry both like a toxin and like an arrow — how does it sink its deadly tooth in your heart, and ear, and brain, again and again?
So, did you set out to write poems around this theme or did you realize a theme was naturally emerging as you were putting this book together?
Both. For me, once I started thinking about toxins and toxicity this way, I started to wonder if I could think of a collection of poems like a quiver of poison arrows. How would they fly, and how would they sink? This notion of the arrow’s flight — rising and sinking — helped me revise individual poems, and the notion of toxicity helped me sharpen each poem’s tooth. As I read back over poems I had written in the previous couple years, I started noticing the theme of toxicity, virality, contagion, fatality everywhere. I wanted my volume, Toxicon, to have that too — a sense of fatality, a sense of something pressing in from everywhere, like environmental toxicity.
When in the process of assembling Toxicon And Arachne did you realize it had a theme, and did you end up writing more poems to fill this book?
That summer, I was rushing to finish the book and submit to publishers because our third daughter, Arachne, was due in September. And then Arachne was born with an unexpected birth defect and lived just two weeks. The shock of her life and death ended and upended Toxicon. It was as if the entire book had prophesized this catastrophe. I experienced one little final short burst of writing the following Spring after her death — the poems of Arachne. At that point I had found a press in Nightboat, and the editors were so patient and instrumental in helping me think and rethink shapes of the volume which would be adequate to this catastrophe. Finally we decided to publish a double volume, with the Arachne poems lodged in the side of the Toxicon, a poison arrow of her own.
Along with poems, you’ve also written novels and plays. Why did you feel poetry was the best form to express how you feel about Arachne and what happened to her?
I don’t think I had any choice in the matter, to be honest. As I mentioned above, I wrote this clutch of poems the Spring after Arachne’s death, because I was so mad that Spring was returning without her. I was so mad about Spring’s fragility and tensility, its fragrance and its fatality, Spring was Arachne’s twin, but she was missing. These poems really did pour out of me, really they were pushed through me, some kind of hydrostatic pressure, something pouring from a tear in a branch, or welling up from an oracular spring. Do you know why the Oracle at Delphi is called the Pythia? It’s because there’s a rotting snake, Python, under the ground there and its rotting carcass sends up fumes which in turn induce prophetic states. That’s what it was like to write these poems. To weep poisonous tears under a regime of poisonous fumes.
That said, I also wanted them to be pretty. Pretty like a baby’s wreath, of baby’s breath.
Most of the poems in Toxicon And Arachne are free verse. Why did you feel free verse was the best form for these poems?
You’re right, most of them are free verse, but they have a song-like phrasal momentum which creates a headlong rhythmic effect in performance, as does all the intricate sound patterning in the word choice itself. Some of the poems are actually patterned on folk songs, like the poem “Vesica Piscis” which takes its refrain from the folk song “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground.” I want these poems to be bewitching and intoxicating.
There are quite a few formal poems though — an entire crown of sonnets for John Keats, a villanelle, and a few sestinas. In the case of the sestinas, I was thinking of being impelled by form, form as a Greek fate that reveals as it tumbles towards its inevitable conclusion. In the crown of sonnets I was thinking about toxins that stay in the system and cannot exit; the repeating form of the crown repeats that catchment effect. And in the villanelle for Arachne, I was thinking of two figures that want to touch and can’t and orbit each other forever, like her and me — and like the repetitions of the villanelle.
Toxicon And Arachne is broken up into five sections. The first and third are untitled, the fifth is the longer poem “Arachne,” while the second and fourth have titles: “Toxic Sonnets: Crown For John Keats” and “A Wormhole For Leslie Cheung.” Do you feel people should read those latter sections all in one sitting, like they’re an epic poem, or can they be taken separately?
Well, I am for sure biased on this point. I think reading right through it might make you feel all the ringing and intoxicating prophecies repeated and fulfilled across the book. Yet I have noticed that readers say they actually read it very slowly, to let each of the new lines or poems sink and intersaturate each other.
Now, Toxicon And Arachne is your fourth poetry collection after 2002’s The Red Bird, 2004’s The Commandrine And Other Poems, and 2012’s Percussion Grenade. Are there any writers who had an influence on the poems in Toxicon And Arachne but not on the ones in those other collections?
I would just say that the poems in Toxicon And Arachne are completely soaked and saturated with influence, inundated, and the poems themselves inundated me. I’m not sure I could draw a line of before-and-after in these influences. Some of the influences in this new book are the oldest, most canonical influences I could have — Wordsworth, Keats, Virgil, the Greeks. Some of the influences are very recent, like Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” [from his album Blonde] which to me is one of the most perfect poems of the last decade in terms of its swerves and its contemplation of and enactment of the sublime (and bears a goddess’s name in its title, to boot).
Other poems in the book gather up events and calamities that are so important to me and may feel like ephemera to others — Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels appears on the bridge at Fallujah in the Keats sonnet, for example. The Iraq War and Katrina are both loud in this book, as in all my books I think.
Catastrophe is my biggest influence.
What about non-literary influences; were any of the poems in Toxicon And Arachne influenced by any music or visual art or maybe a movie or TV show you watched?
Music for sure. As I mentioned above, folk songs like “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” along with Frank Ocean’s “Nikes,” those are two important songs for this book. Big Star was very present in the writing of the Arachne poems, and the last poem in the Arachne sequence is an explicit homage to “Stroke It Noel” from Big Star’s Third. I thought about beauty and evanescence, what is so keen that it almost snuffs itself out. (Answers: Arachne. Lyric.) There are also some songs that were so influential that they are concealed from the book.
I should also note that one sequence of the book is an elegy for Leslie Cheung [Farewell My Concubine], the most beautiful movie actor in the age of color film, in my opinion. What Ingrid Bergman is to black and white film, Leslie Cheung is to color film. Celestial beauty. A beauty which snuffed itself out.
Some poets are influenced by reading their poems at open mics and poetry readings. Is this something you do as well?
I definitely write with sound first and foremost in my mind. Sound is what pours through my body literally, opens my throat and lungs, occupies the nasal vaults, calls to and blows me apart. So I adore the chance to perform and let these poems blow through me, let sound animate me and bounce around the room I’m in. Performance is an event. It pulls together the bodies of all those present into a temporary co-body made up of so many ears and sternums and sacrums and eyes — a wonderful monstrous group body that could do anything, animated by monstrous sound.
Now, along with writing poetry, you also co-own and serve as the co-editor of Action Books, which has published poetry books by Lucas de Lima [Wet Land], Ghayath Almadhoun [Adrenalin], and others. How do you think editing other people’s poetry collections influenced what you did in Toxicon And Arachne?
Without a doubt, being an editor at Action blew open my notion of what poetry could be. Literally blew the doors off my poetry. Poets like Raúl Zurita, Kim Hyesoon, Hiromi Ito, Ghayath Almadhoun, so many more, just showed me this zenith towards which I should always push my work. Their work is voice driven, at once cosmic and domestic, paradoxical, and equal in force to the forces that oppress us (another principle I learned from Zurita). I am completely translated. I am also translated by contact with translator-poets — Don Mee Choi, Johannes Göransson, Daniel Borzutzky, Michelle Gil-Montero, Valerie Meier-Caso, Jeffrey Angles, Katherine Hedeen, Todd Fredsom, who literally doubled and multiplied and exfoliated my notions of writing and activism — yes. It’s been a completely transformative experience to be part of Action Books.
I also have to ask, why not publish Toxicon And Arachne through Action Books?
Good question! It didn’t even occur to me to use the resources of Action Books on myself [laughs].
Now, many of the poems in Toxicon And Arachne have published before, in such journals as The Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, and Cordite. Are the versions in Toxicon And Arachne the same as in those journals?
They are mostly the same, because these poems were largely written when possessed by Sound. Once I have honed them to the point where they make the shape of Sound I was hearing when I wrote them, I don’t make any more changes usually. I just let the Sound pour through me in the performance.
Finally, if someone enjoys Toxicon And Arachne, and it’s the first poetry book of yours they’ve read, which of your others would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Well, I wrote a book of lyric essays called The Necropastoral which is compiles all the reading, writing, thinking I was doing leading up to writing Toxicon, sort of like the book turned inside out. The Necropastoral is this idea that art and writing can be this non-hierarchical zone which hosts all kind of strange meetings — between reader and writer, writer and translator, artist and artist, language and language– creating all kind of unexpected and spectacular effects. It’s an exciting and excited, and dismaying and dismayed model of art that looks for models in such usually non-valorized biological forms as mold, bugs, mutation, decomposition. It sees uncanny light and paradoxical possibility there.